Week 3, Day 1: How to Help Them Thrive with Distance Learning.

Virtual handshake, high-five, fist bump, hug.

As we emerge from the strangest spring break in history, we are galvanized to help all of our students cross the finish line for spring term. We know some students will be OK. Some might even thrive. Others will take the Unsatisfactory grade option, or default to a D or F because they were struggling and didn’t read that email or Canvas announcement. How do we do our best to structure the learning so that more of our students can thrive in the distance environment, and achieve learning that will stick with them?

My Fab Four Suggestions

1. Prompt Metacognition.

Prompt your learners to reflect on where they are with their own learning process. Help them grow their metacognitive powers at various stages of learning this week. For example, if you are giving homework or a quiz, after content questions occasionally ask a follow-up question about the student’s level of confidence with the previous answer given. This reflective pause promotes metacognition as a habit of mind, so that learners aren’t fooling themselves about the depth of their understanding. They are confronting their own sense of mastery in the moment. Most students don’t do this on their own. It’s on us as educators to layer it into the learning process.

2. Cultivate Creativity.

Unless you are in the arts or creative writing, you may feel you need express permission to deliberately, intentionally require your students to think, act, and be creative in your course. Well, the literature on teaching and learning has your back. Do it. Many of them will immediately feel a spark of energy to engage in your out-of-the-ordinary activity/assignment. Their engagement will deepen even more if they have a decent measure of agency over the creative task. One caveat, some will hold back unless they feel there is an exploratory atmosphere in which they won’t be penalized for going out on a creative limb. The best way to handle this is to give credit for time on task, or experience points, rather than grading the worth of their creation. The act of leveraging student imagination is a trifle unsung, and it is among our most powerful educational moves.

3. Help Situate Meaning.

As you prepare to teach “new to them” subjects and concepts this week, are you priming your students for optimal understanding and long-term memory? Take a few extra minutes to prep your students by activating their prior knowledge. It is very helpful to have them recall related lived experiences they have had that could connect up to the content you are about to teach. Then, after the new content is explained, turn the tables back to the students to think about and write about how it relates to something in their lives, their family, their neighborhoods, etc. By helping them to situate new academic content into their existing mental schema, you have helped them to acquire a more lasting understanding.

4. Communicate Often.

It need not be too long, but our learners need to hear important messages from us regularly and frequently. One of the most accepted hallmarks of remote teaching practices is strong “instructor presence.” Daily posts of mini-videos, inspiring quotes, administrative announcements, and meaningful timely feedback on their words and work are exactly what it is going to take to keep students with us this term. Many instructors are “flipping” their course content so that students can engage asynchronously, and then scheduling their Zoom/phone “office” hours during the time when class was previously scheduled. This works for students who have a good deal of availability. But for those working essential jobs at the grocery stores, or attending to children, please offer your assistance over email, and by appointment.

Best wishes for a productive week. We are all in for our students! We are all in to provide faculty support. Reach out anytime: teaching@missouri.edu.